Before trying pho — a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup — for breakfast, it’s good to spend a few minutes figuring out how to pronounce it. It’s “fuh”, not “fo”. Pronunciation feels unnatural, but consumption will come easy. Pho arrives as a steaming column of fragrance — scents of anise and ginger rise from the semi-clear, brownish liquid that immerses the mound of thin rice noodles, chopped scallions, cilantro, basil, bean sprouts and thin cuts of beef. In America, this is often lunch, dinner or a post-drinking late-night snack. But in Vietnam, this is breakfast.
Pho’s popularity in Vietnam was largely in the north but that changed after the Partition of Vietnam in 1954 when many North Vietnamese fled south. The Hanoi (north) and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (south) versions of the dish sport variations like noodle width, broth sweetness and herbs. It’s common to see pho served in the north for all meals, whereas in the south, it’s typically omitted from the dinner menu. Its presentation is considerably less dressed up than we westerners would prefer. In Vietnam, it’s served in restaurants and by street vendors. Plus, as breakfast fare before a long day at work, it’s inexpensive, fast and low maintenance. A bowl of pho in the US tends to appears in a not-so-shockingly larger and fancier guise, but regardless, it still makes for a good morning meal.
The noodle soup is hot, flavorful, not overly heavy and is meant to wake you up rather than put you to sleep. It is an all-in-one dish that combines herbs, spices and thin, flat rice noodles. Throw in fresh sliced jalapeños, bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, and that all-important basil. You get carbs, protein and veggies, and if you’re getting it from a legit restaurant (meaning decorated wall to wall with Vietnamese ads and posters, ringing with the appropriate din of music in the background), there will be big chopsticks, a tray of hot sauces, a massive stack of napkins and a six-inch-tall stack of wonton spoons at the ready.
Go big and get sliced rare beef steak and meatballs. Dump in the plate of veggies and douse with enough Sriracha and Hoisin sauce to induce salivation. The hot broth will then open up the sinuses and wake the body. Enjoy. A bowl will run you between $5 and $10, and once you’ve had it for breakfast, you — like the millions who rush the street vendors in Vietnam — will rise again in anticipation of more.
How to Speak Pho
Mains: pho bo (beef pho), pho ga (chicken) and pho chay (vegetables)
Options Within Beef: bo chin (sliced well-done steak), bo tai (sliced rare steak), nam (flank steak), ve don (crunchy flank steak), gau (fatty brisket), gan (tendon), sach (tripe), bo vien (beef meatballs, normally with tendon).
Additional Customizations: nuoc trong (standard non-fat broth), nuoc beo (fatty broth), tai song (rare meat), it banh (smaller noodle portion), nhieu banh (extra noodles), it thit (smaller meat portion), nuoc beo hanh tran (fatty broth with blanched onions), gia chin (side order of steamed bean sprouts), khong hanh (no scallions), khong hanh ngo (no scallions/cilantro), khong hanh tay (no onions).